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Reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

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David Ormrod is Professor of Economic and Cultural History at University of Kent


My suggestion from the floor of the conference (sparked in part by several papers attempting to define the scope of Temple’s thinking for our current social order) was that we should recall the thinking of the Christian Left in the 1930s and 40s beside which Temple’s social thought can be seen in clearer perspective.  This is especially important today for those who deplore the inequalities created by the dismantling of the welfare state from the 1980s.  Although some in the conference and elsewhere see this as creating new opportunities for religious engagement, the former must view this state of affairs with alarm.

Christianity and Social Order opens with the clearest possible affirmation of the Church’s claim to be heard in relation to economic and political issues.  Its historical reference points come directly from Tawney, and Temple’s description of the nineteenth-century pioneers of the Christian social movement affirms their significance in recovering the Church’s moral authority and commitment to social justice, in retreat since the post-Restoration decades.  Since the late eighteenth century, urbanisation and industrialisation created conditions demanding social reform, but until the 1840s, the primary concern of reformers was still for individuals (pp. 1-10).

From the 1880s to 1945, we can identify a developing Christian and socialist convergence, and Temple’s contribution is best understood in this context.  In 1937, Clement Attlee wrote, ‘…probably the majority of those who have built up the socialist movement in this country have been adherents of the Christian religion – and not merely adherents, but enthusiastic members of some religious body.  There are probably more texts from the Bible enunciated from socialist platforms than from those of all other parties.’ The Malvern conference of 1941 marked the high point of these convergent forces, and as they have dissipated, something of an ethical void has opened up in our society. 

During the interwar years, more than a dozen Christian socialist societies and movements flourished in Britain, with the express purpose of exercising a prophetic and vanguardist role within the churches and in society at large.  We can identify two main tendencies within and amongst them.  The first, that of the majority, was represented by Temple and Tawney focusing on the idea of an ‘ethical state’.  The second and more radical approach, emerging during the late 1930s, was most cogently expressed by John Macmurray, deriving from his humanist-inclined philosophy and his encounter with the Marxist-inclined Christian Left and its publications. Victor Gollancz, John Lewis, Richard Acland, Stafford Cripps and John Collins played prominent roles.

The thought of the Christian Left developed at some distance from progressive Anglican social thought and its claims on a sense of British national identity.  The incarnational principle, in Temple’s case, led to a conservative view of the church: the visible church was seen as the preferred instrument for inaugurating the kingdom of God. Furthermore, the relationship between the established church and the state had a special significance since the nation state was also seen as a divinely established means of bringing forward the kingdom.  Hence the duties of Christian citizenship formed an important theme.  As John Kent has pointed out, this rested on an Aristotelian view of politics in which state and society were identical – the ‘oneness of the world within the city’s walls’, the polis.  For Temple, British national identity required a bonding religion, Anglicanism.  Tawney, however, was much less optimistic about the potentialities of the Church of England which, he felt, ‘remains a class institution, making respectful salaams to property and gentility, and with too little faith in its own creed to call a spade a spade in the vulgar manner of the New Testament.’

Macmurray and his circle envisaged a moral community which transcended the boundaries of the nation state and the churches.  Christian consciousness, he realised, was deeply embedded in society, extending well beyond the visible church.  Above all, it was expressed in personal relations: the nature and quality of personal relations was the touchstone of the ethical society.  By 1944, Temple saw the purpose of God as ‘the development of persons in community’, a formula very close to the former’s thinking.  Macmurray, in turn, moved closer to the earlier concerns of mainstream Christian socialism as he came to realise the full extent to which German fascism had succeeded in asserting a rational control of society as a whole.  Wartime debates within the Christian Left reflected a loss of faith in social systems which rested principally on rational planning and took a more humanistic turn.  By 1945, the moment had arrived to translate the consensus achieved at Malvern into a new kind of ethical state.

This is the second of two reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

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Reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

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Victoria Turner, PhD Candidate, World Christianity, University of Edinburgh


This conference was jointly organized by the William Temple Foundation and the new Centre for Anglican History and Theology at the University of Kent, hosted in the grounds of Canterbury Cathedral. The conference sought to both historically contextualize and reflect on Temple’s most famous publication, Christianity and The Social Order and also question its and Temple’s relevance for our world today.

The first paper was delivered by Professor Kenneth Fincham from the University of Kent. Professor Fincham compared William Temple to William Laud who was Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and executed in 1645 with the falling of Charles I. The biggest similarity of both Archbishops was their conviction that the church should absolutely be involved in political affairs. Whereas this legacy has been avidly remembered for Temple, it has fallen away from the memory of Laud, receiving only a brief mention in his entry to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.[1]  

I appreciated this paper, but questioned its applicability in this conference, especially at the start of the day. Fincham took for granted that the audience were already Temple “experts” and the concentration was on Laud. I was hungry and eager to begin learning about Temple at our 10am start, so although this scheduling made sense chronologically, conceptually, it was strange to begin a conference that celebrated Temple by not focusing on Temple, especially for a non-conformist already feeling a little out of place in a very Anglican setting.

The second paper was more what I imagined would be presented at the conference. My interest in Temple comes from his social justice work, especially its roots which was formed when he was studying in Oxford and volunteered with the University settlements and also his ecumenical work. Being a student of mission at the University of Edinburgh, the impact of the Edinburgh World Missionary Conference of 1910 where Temple was a young steward is continuously reflected on. Part of my PhD is exploring George MacLeod who started the Iona Community in Scotland in 1938, and MacLeod was inspired by the Toc H movement, founded by Tubby Clayton during World War 1, which also finds its roots in the University Settlement movement. I enjoyed Simon Lee’s careful recounting of how the mission of Tonybee Hall changed as the ‘leaders’ understood their working-class context better and how this incarnational theology and emphasis on listening to the poor continued in Temple as archbishop.

Elaine Graham blessed us with a superb paper that questioned how Temple would react to today’s questions surrounding gender and sexuality. Firstly Graham outlined the huge social shifts that have occurred since 1942 and warned of the dangers of too easily applying Temple’s ideas to our context. Yet by highlighting his incarnational theology, middle axioms idea and insistence on listening to the marginalized (for the elites to make the decision on their behalf) she explained how she believed Temple would be affirming of creating spaces for discourse, encouraging the theology of common grace and perhaps even following Susanna Cornwall’s idea of going back to virtue ethics and asking generally, what is it about a marriage that as Christians we value. Jeremy Carrette stayed in our context of today in the next paper but applied Temple to our climate crisis. Temple was clear in his stance that land was not a mere resource and should be used for personal profit, only for the common good. Carrette successfully argued Temple in 1942 pushed us to regain our reverence for the earth.

The third panel of the day was entitled ‘Church, Society and Race’ and for me were the least academically stimulating. Robin Gill had an interesting concept in posing Temple and Desmond Tutu as both ‘speaking truth to power’ in their own time but I felt the omission of an acknowledgement of their incredibly different lived experiences clouded the paper and made me question the applicability of the comparison. Whereas Tutu had to ‘speak truth to power’ to fight for his humanity to be recognized, Temple chose to spend time with those less fortunate than himself and learn how to alleviate their position (not without paternalistic undertones) without ever having the threat of losing his privilege. The truth cost Tutu a lot more, across a much larger distance. Sanjee Perera’s paper was given as more of a sermon, where her passion for her job in racial justice for the Church of England came across but it felt like Temple quotes were slotted in here and there rather than structuring her talk on how Temple relates to her work. The question that interrogated Temple’s  relationship with Beveridge, who was a member of the Eugenics Society I thought was important, especially as it pushed another conference member to talk about Temple’s work with the Jewish Community during the war and eventually setting up today’s Council for Christians and Jews.

Chris Baker explored how to build back society in our post-pandemic times and wondered how Temple’s elitist leanings and trust of institutions clash with our culture, especially among the young today. Finally, Stephen Spencer gave an excellent talk that explored the collaborative effort that made Temple’s ‘Christianity and the Social Order’, including it being peer-reviewed by Keynes, Tawney and other academics. He also argued that this book represents just one moment in an important wider context of consultative methodology that engaged theology, industrialization, economics and politics.

The conference speakers and topics were varied but the audience was not. It was overwhelmingly white and male despite the William Temple Foundation being overtly progressive and contextual and a number of the conference papers explicitly being contextualized for today. The audience were  generally church historians or theologians interested in Temple, and although receptive to applying him for today, generally wanting to explore his theology and legacy. The attempt to merge a historical conference with a public theology conference, inviting both Temple experts and not, created in my opinion a confused atmosphere but still a hospitable and lovely one, especially felt in the visit to the archive. I quickly felt able to ask questions and by around lunch brave enough to talk to participants in break out spaces.


[1] A. Milton, ‘Laud, William (1573-1645),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004), accessed 25/03/2022 via https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-16112.

This is the first of two reflections on the 80th Anniversary Conference of Christianity and the Social Order

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A Spiritual and Political Voice

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80th Anniversary of the Enthronement of William Temple, Canterbury Cathedral Archive and the BBC Recordings from 23rd April 1942

Jeremy Carrette and Cressida Williams

Political statements by Archbishops of Canterbury have long resulted in debate about the relation of the church to politics and it seems appropriate, in the current context of the government response to Archbishop Justin Welby’s ethical concerns with government asylum plans, that we should recall the 80th anniversary of the enthronement of an archbishop that demonstrated a profound commitment to Christian ethical engagement in social and political issues. Archbishop William Temple was enthroned at Canterbury Cathedral on the festival of St. George on 23rd April 1942.

According to Dominic Bellinger and Stella Fletcher’s study of the history of archbishops, The Mitre and the Crown (Sutton Publishing, 2005, p.166), Archbishop William Temple was viewed as “probably the most actively political of the modern archbishops of Canterbury”. His active contribution to the creation of the welfare state, alongside William Beveridge, can be seen in his famous text Christianity and Social Order (1942), on which the Centre for Anglican History and Theology and the William Temple Foundation hosted a recent conference at Canterbury Cathedral, to reflect on its continuing importance 80 years on from its publication. Christianity and Social Order first appeared with William Temple named as Archbishop of York, but within months this successful text appeared with the new title of Archbishop of Canterbury. If Boris Johnson was concerned with his Archbishop’s political statements, Winston Churchill, as noted by various commentators, was not happy with the appointment of William Temple and his social agenda: see John Kent William Temple (Cambridge, 1992) and Stephen Spencer William Temple: A Calling to Prophecy (SPCK, 2001). However, as the letter recommendatory of George VI, written on the 1st April 1942, confirms, he was appointed as the ‘new primate of all England’. This official document, with its royal stamp, is held in the Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library (document CCA-DCc/SV1/1942/27) and reveals the importance of the Canterbury Cathedral archive for the key historical documents of William Temple’s enthonement and the events surrounding this historic moment.

While the official papers of William Temple as Archbishop of Canterbury are held at Lambeth Palace Library, alongside other papers deposited after his death by his widow Frances, the Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library holds material relating to the translation of Temple to the See of Canterbury, to his formal election by the Greater Chapter of the Cathedral, to his enthronement, and to his funeral. There is also a set of manuscripts of sermons delivered at the Cathedral, and broadcast on radio, between Palm Sunday and Easter Day 1942, just after his appointment and just before his enthronement. These were presented by Frances Temple to the Cathedral. She notes in a covering letter how glad her late husband was “that the first time he spoke to the country on the radio after his appointment to Canterbury he should be speaking on a purely spiritual subject”. However, his Easter address of the 5th April 1942, revealed a spiritual message that would bridge the ethical life with the political. He stated in this address that the call to Easter was not a call to “easy assurance of enjoyment in a heaven of selfish happiness” but rather a place “where love and self-giving are made perfect”. Temple’s spirituality was one grounded in a vision of ethical and social concern, through overcoming the self-centred approach and building a life of loving and compassionate relation to the world.

The Canterbury Cathedral Archives and Library also holds the old BBC recordings of the Enthronement, 10 x 78rpm disks (CCA-U202/2), now digitalised by the BBC. Listening to these recordings and viewing the Pathé film – an enthronement “filmed for the first time in history” – you are taken back to the particular historical context of an Archbishop appointed during the war. The commentary informs us the windows are boarded up and precious glass removed and stored away; the austerity of the war time ceremony is evident. We hear evocative descriptions of the statue of Frederick Temple, the 95th Archbishop of Canterbury, echoing the significance of William Temple as the first son of an Archbishop of Canterbury to be enthroned into the same position and become the 98th Archbishop of Canterbury. The listener is also struck by the powerful liturgical singing. Though there were some day choristers living locally in Canterbury who continued to sing throughout the war, the boy choristers were returned from evacuation in Cornwall for the Enthronement. (They would also be sadly returned for William Temple’s funeral a few years later in 1944.)

The BBC recordings of the Enthronement of William Temple presents the “main part of the ceremony and his Grace’s address which we (the BBC) had the privilege of recording for listeners at home and overseas”. It is significant that there were representatives of world churches, including the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches; William Temple worked tirelessly for ecumenical unity and his address also affirmed not only unity and fellowship of the Anglican Communion, but also recognised and valued “traditions other than our own”.

Along with the “Instrument of Proceedings”, a document made by the Notary Public to formally record the event in writing (also held in the Canterbury Cathedral Archive and Library, see CCA-DCc/SV1/1942/29), the eloquent descriptions of the BBC recording capture the moment of when Temple “moves down the crimson steps from the high-altar towards the [marble] episcopal throne” of St. Augustine, the first Archbishop in 597. After Archbishop Temple kisses the book of the gospels we listen to the making of the corporal oath. With the recorded crackling sounds of rumbling chairs and echoing coughs, we then hear how the Archdeacon takes the Archbishop by the hand and places him on the episcopal throne and he is “inducted, installed and enthroned” into the archbishopric.

Disks 6-8 of the BBC recording, record the Archbishop’s address. This was published in a 1944 collection of Temple’s addresses and talks, The Church Looks Forward (Macmillan, 1944), but the recording brings it alive, particularly the “few personal words” expressing his “sense of complete inadequacy” in following those he has known. Here he opens personal reflections on the Archbishops of Canterbury he knew in his life: Edward White Benson (“wise stateman and true priest”), his father Frederick Temple (“the chief inspiration of my life”), Randall Thomas Davidson (“a second father to me”) and his predecessor Cosmo Gordon Lang (“most wise elder counsellor and ever more intimate friend”). As he openly affirmed: “To follow such men is daunting”. But the force of the enthronement service as a “dedication of the Church, the nation and ourselves to the purpose of God” overcomes these feelings of inadequacy. It is that conviction that shapes the moment of the enthronement. Addressing a nation facing the horrors of war, he felt that St. George’s day was appropriate for the enthronement, because it held the sense of service and martyrdom in the national identity at a time of world war. He also spoke of the Church World Conferences (in Stockholm, Lausanne, Jerusalem, Oxford, Edinburgh, Madras and Amsterdam) carrying the ecumenical and social concerns of Christianity. The themes of peace, faith and unity and, above all, that ethical devotion to following the “purpose of God” framed the address. The address revealed the central focus of his work in bringing Christian principles to shape the national agenda. The enthronement of William Temple was recognition of his lifelong leadership in the church and his unique ability to bring a spiritual and political voice into the world.

80 years after the BBC recorded the events of William Temple’s enthronement, it is striking that the Research Director of the William Temple Foundation, Professor Chris Baker, was asked to comment on BBC World News about the response to Justin Welby’s challenge to government and explain why Temple is relevant to this discussion. Professor Baker explained that for Temple it was “the duty of the church to shape society, and the way society thinks, in accordance with the principles of God”. Temple shows how the spiritual and political are joined together. The grand ritual of Temple’s enthronement and his Holy Week addresses, preserved in Canterbury Cathedral Archive and Library, signal how Temple’s vision roots his normative Christian ethical values in the theological purpose of God. It provides a moral dimension beyond history to ground the interventions and actions within in human life. The 80th anniversary of William Temple’s enthronement as Archbishop of Canterbury is an historical event that is not only wonderfully preserved in word, sound and image, but one that continues to demonstrate the importance of uniting the spiritual and political in the face of the challenges of war and social injustice.  

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